Back when my teenager was a very small child, a married colleague came by to visit my little flat in Rigaer Straße in Berlin-Friedrichshain. I was renting two rooms at €279 (those were the days, hey!) “Your ex pays for this flat, right”, she asked. “How”, said I, “Do what?”
The colleague was Irish, just a little older than me. And married to a German guy called Nils. “Nils told me”, she said, “how it works in Germany. He said that you don’t pay your rent on your own. Your ex pays for you. Now he’s got to pay for two flats, because you’ve decided to leave him! I dunno, I feel kinda sorry for him.” You could literally smell her disapproval – but I was more confused than anything else. “Paul’s still a student”, I said. “And he doesn’t have to pay anything. Actually, it’s the Job Centre who pays the rent right now.”
I am a social scrounger, not a gold digger!
GET IT RIGHT, BITCH, I thought. I’m a social scrounger, not a gold digger. Why did Nils say something so strange? My colleague seemed about to shudder.
“I could never do this myself!”, she said. She was almost shivering with fear. “Live on your own! With your children! Without a man! Compleeeeetely alone. It’s just terrifying! Alone in bed every night – so cold, the very idea! No-one who you can call when the washing machine isn’t working. Oh, absolutely. I would have to…:” now she whispered very quietly, so that the children wouldn’t hear. “…kill myself!” I nodded.
This wasn’t the first time that I’d heard something like this. And I find this pity people openly feel for single mothers, really interesting. It’s always pity, never empathy. Pity mixed with contempt. The poor single mother, alone with the kids. Alone with the washing. Alone in a cold bed. Alone, alone, alone. You feel pity for these poor women – these wretched women. With their empty lives in their cold flats, in their cold beds!
I think it’s a problem when people feel sympathy or pity for others – without any real empathy for their problems or curiosity about what the realities of their lives are. If people were truly interested, if people had any kind of curiosity for the reality of single mothers’ lives in Germany, they’d know that our beds are really not that cold – mine isn’t, at any rate.
Our problems have nothing to do with loneliness!
Like many other single mothers in Germany, I live in a WBS flat – that is a flat with a ‘Wohnberechtigungsschein’, which entitles you to subsidized housing. A three-room apartment. This mean I don’t have my own bedroom – I sleep in the living room. So, almost every night, at around three o’clock in the morning, my toddler runs from his bedroom into the living room, jumps on to my sofa bed, and informs me that sleeping alone just isn’t “comfy”. This means that we sleep together on my small bed settee, his hot body pressed against mine. Sometimes he takes so much space that I fall onto the floor, and he wakes up, looks at me with interest, and asks curiously what I’m up to. Yeah, ok, probably if I did have a bedroom, he’d still be running into my room at some time in the night.
But the point I am trying to make is this: The problems of single mothers have nothing to do with loneliness. Our lives are difficult, but they’re not lonely or sad. We often have colourful, full, warm lives. But often also lives which are bloody hard. They’re not hard because we’re lonely, or because we’re missing a man, a husband to complete us. Single mothers’ lives are hard because society has made conscious decisions to make them hard.
People spend a lot of time and energy on pitying poor single mothers. During Corona, in the election year, or whenever it suits politicians, basically, many, many crocodile tears will flow because of us poor single mothers! So much pity. Because of single mothers, lockdown had to be ended immediately – because of single mothers the speed limit on the motorway could not be removed. Seems like single mothers are the perfect victims sometimes. Well, it’s nice to be thought of every now and then – but forgive me for thinking that this pity for single mothers only comes into play when it’s useful. If something needs to be changed which would ONLY benefit single mothers – well, then the tears don’t flow quite so hard.
The biggest losers of all time
It’s a weird paradox really: on the one hand, single mothers serve as a symbol for the biggest losers of all time – portrayed as people for whom things couldn’t be worse. Yet at the same time, the most paranoid fantasies circulate about how easy things are for us! Apparently, if you’re a single mother you IMMEDIATELY get a nursery place, a married mother told me in the playground. Or if you’re a single mother you’ll be given your WBS certificate IMMEDIATELY, according to my good friend Lina. And when you’re a single mother, the youth welfare office pays your nursery costs, doesn’t it?, asked my good friend Stefan. Right? Right? Right? Or the other day on the internet, a white young childless guy assured me that if you’re a single mother, you just have to show a WBS voucher to a housing company like Degewo, and you IMMEDIATELY receive a flat – assigned to you!
These paranoid fantasies remind me of the fantasies Pegida supporters have about refugees who are driven in taxis paid for by the welfare office to cosmetic surgery clinics paid for by the state health insurance. It’s interesting, though, that these crazy fantasies about single mom privileges are more or less believed by everyone – even by people who are not misogynist or sexist or classist in the slightest. This is because so little is actually known about the lived reality of single motherhood. It really makes you wonder: if our society really gave so many privileges to single mothers, why would people have to pity us?
The function of pity for single mothers
And it’s important to recognise that this pity has a function: it demonstrates contempt. We are meant to understand that we are shit, basically lonely, sad, marginal figures. Why did Nils tell my ex-colleague that I get “my rent” paid for me by my ex? He didn’t want her to see that it is possible for a woman to live independently from a man – he wanted to show her that I’m to be pitied. I think that the reason for this pity is to scare off married women. Oh, the poor single mothers – their life is so cold, so gruesome, so terrible – compared to the happy married women. I honestly think: if the single mother wasn’t such a tragic figure – if society showed more solidarity and fair treatment for single mothers – there would be far fewer women who stay with their male partners.
And we mustn’t forget that the term “single mother” can be used to describe many different people in many different life situations. There are single mothers who are white German women in secure, well paid jobs, who live around the corner from their mama and share everything 50/50 with their ex. Such women really don’t need so much pity! There are single mums too, who are, white foreign women, who don’t even know the father of their child – and earn so much that they can pay a nanny. Princess Diana was also a single mother, as her boys lived in boarding schools (yeah, okay, she is a single mother who deserved our pity!) But single mothers’ struggles can be quite different. We are not all in the same boat – far from it. However, even the truly “poor” single mothers – the ones who live from Hartz IV or precarious work: they don’t need your pity either. What single mothers need is empathy, support and a fairer society. And a WBS voucher for a flat with a bedroom!
This article first appeared in German on the Edition F website. Translation: Phil Butland. Reproduced with permission.